In every epic quest, the hero faces various challenges before achieving his final goal. Each challenge comes with its own set of obstacles to overcome and lessons to learn. Aragorn had to walk the Paths of the Dead before he could achieve his crown. Frodo had to defeat a giant spider before he could cross Mordor to destroy the Ring. Harry Potter had to destroy each horcrux one by one before he could finally take on Voldemort. Mario, Sonic, and a number of other classic game characters have to defeat each level before they can move on to the next. But with each new obstacle, the adventurer gains new knowledge and skills which will help him to achieve his ultimate goal.
In my quest to become a gamer, each new game that I play presents just such a challenge. The games contain their own obstacles to be overcome and skills to be learned. Overcoming those obstacles and learning those skills prepares me to take on future games.
Yesterday I Overcame the First Challenge in my Quest
By that, of course, I mean that I have finished my first game.
Now, I know that my posts have talked about several games. So yes, this is a confession that while I have started a number of games, up until yesterday I had not completed any of them. My Civilization is sitting in the industrial age, my great hall in Minecraft is still unbuilt, and I still have not figured out how to hit the moving target.
But yesterday, I finally completed one of the most interesting games that I have played thus far: Portal.
For those of you that have played it, you know that Portal is not a lengthy game. I finished the whole thing in about six hours of game time. But what it lacks in game time, Portal more than makes up for in brain-bending puzzles with very specific governing rules.
The game revolves around the ability to teleport through the use of portals. The first few puzzles are completed without the use of portals. As the puzzles get more complex, the player obtains the ability to open one side and, ultimately, both sides of a portal.
The portal is a fascinating tool in the completion of puzzles. I quickly learned that the portal has the ability not only to move the character from one side of a room to another, but also to launch her great distances and move objects from one place to another. This comes in quite handy when seeking to jump across wide gaps or drop objects on hostile robots.
But it is the puzzles themselves that are the really brilliant part of Portal. Each puzzle requires analysis and patience to determine the proper way to complete. Moreover, each puzzle requires some level of trial and error. On my way, I experienced my share of falling into chemical filled water, being hit by flying balls of energy, and being riddled with bullet holes by robot sentries. I also experienced my fair share of motion sickness as the camera fell, flew, and flipped through various puzzles (my wife couldn’t watch longer than about 2 minutes). But whether it took one try (rare, if ever) or several tries (almost always), I managed to overcome each new puzzle.
Entering the Story
(This section contains a few spoilers, so if you haven’t played the game yet and want to, you should probably skip to the end.)
The narrative of Portal was actually one of my favorite parts. I say this with some surprise because the narrative is in many ways secondary to puzzles. This is not a story-based game. But often the beauty of a narrative is in its simplicity, and such is the case with Portal.
The game opens with the character being allowed to leave what a robot voice assures you is a sleep chamber, but really looks like a glass prison cell. From there, the character is informed that she will be participating in a series of tests for research purposes. But as the character continues to complete tasks, the robot voice begins to drop hints about some ominous end to this test, all the while assuring you that there will be a party and cake. Soon the character begins to find rusted out rooms with messages of help scribbled on the wall in what looks like blood.
All is Not As it Seems
From the very beginning I knew that this world was not as it seemed. This was ever clearer with each new hint from the robot voice and each mysterious room. But there is something still unnerving when the game finally confirms the that robot voice (the robot voice turns out to be GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence that has taken over the facility) is actually trying to kill you.
From that point on, it’s a fight for your life (or rather a “figure out the puzzle for your life”) rushing through back hallways, passing massive machinery, and evading eager robot sentries. The game still requires thought and analysis, but the tension is increased dramatically.
I think that is why I enjoyed the simple narrative so much. We have all heard the tale of the evil robot trying to kill the humans before. Rather than trying to have some brilliant twist, Portal uses the well known narrative to add yet another obstacle for the player. Not only was I required to assess the physical obstacles and determine the best way to overcome them, but in the back of my mind I was constantly reminded that all bets were off. Whatever I faced going forward was designed to destroy me.
The Final Obstacle
After hours of teleporting, jumping, and fighting my way through puzzles, I reached GLaDOS, the robot who had been trying to kill me throughout the game. You find out that she had once flooded the facility with a nerve gas, which she now decided to turn on you. So, the final puzzle is on a timer as the gas spills out of overhead vents. Once again, the narrative became a means of adding tension.
I was amused that half the final battle is basically like shooting a bank shot in pool. A turret is firing rockets at the character. Using portals, the character must redirect the rockets back at GLaDOS who hangs in the center of the room. Getting the angle correct is important as the rockets seem to bank off the wall back toward the center of the room. I have never played pool with rockets and homicidal robots before, but I thoroughly enjoyed it this time.
The Thrill of Victory
Finally, GLaDOS was defeated. The credits began to roll. A robot voice started to sing. And I found myself leaning back in my chair, smiling (and not just at the witty, if somewhat disturbing, lyrics of the robot’s song).
There is something so satisfying in the completion of a video game. It’s a feeling not just of entertainment, but of accomplishment. I have always found there to be a distinct difference between finishing a movie and finishing a book. When a movie ends, I am satisfied at the completion of the story (Unless the movie is The Hobbit). But when I read the last line of the page, and close the back cover, I feel that I have done something significant; something that took time and effort to achieve.
That is the feeling I experienced during the credits of Portal. I had achieved something. It had taken thought and skill to complete, but I had done it. Maybe that is a bit much, but for my first time to finish a desktop game, it seemed appropriate. It seemed like victory.
As always, thanks for reading! Make sure you check out GameWisp!